The re-innauguration of the renovated “Cable Street Mural” which adorns the side wall of St George’s Town Hall provided a focus for a celebration of people’s victory against adversity. The mural – a now world famous visual depiction of the ‘battle’ which raged in London’s east end in the 1936 – is also a story of a number of artists coming together to research, design and carry out a task that was both creatively and physically challenging. The magic that permeates around the mural is from the myriad of stories that circulate it – from local people who were directly involved in the ‘Battle’ to the artists who imagined the scene and the politicians who enabled the mural to come into being. Each element giving extra dimension to our experience and understanding. The idea to paint a large mural depicting an event of local social and political significance is one story, another story is the artists’ physical task of carrying out the work, local groups and individuals who joined in the campaign to have the mural and secure its location have another story. The events illustrated in the mural bring together diverse collective memories of October 4th 1936 – the actual day the ‘battle’ against Mosley’s fascist march into the east end of London took place.
The arduous and physical process of locating, designing, and making the Cable Street mural is significant in the development of community led initiatives. Disputes of ‘ownership’, stylistic approaches and technical methods, and questions over ‘subject matter’ has opened up the whole issue of what is public and what is community, what is engagement. In the late 1970s there was a movement to paint murals in public spaces. The movement was most evident in Ireland during the “troubles” with a blossoming of massive illustrative murals on the sides of broken down buildings. However these murals were sectarian and seen as confrontational – At the same time NY punk hip hop graffiti was on the rise with murals perceived as grafitti and considered anti-social – running alongside these conflicting practices artists in residence were actively encouraging children to decorate their drab urban environments with paint and mosaics – this was seen as positive action which brought communities together and gave them a sense of place.
The artist who initiated the Cable Street mural project in 1979 was Dave Binnington. He contacted fellow painter Paul Butler and following discussions and a pooling of visual ideas an image for a mural emerged. Local people were also ‘thinking’ of murals as a way to engage with the wider community. The ‘political’ subject matter of the mural was bound to attract adversaries. In the early stages of the Binnington /Butler mural production when the images were becoming apparent it was attacked by the BNP. This attack coupled with technical and physical difficulties that had built up around the mural resulted in Dave Binnington’s abandoning the project. Following this Paul Butler took up the task and contacted another muralist, Des Rochfort – who in turn pulled in Ray Walker. The three artists then set to work redesigning the mural whilst maintaining elements of Binnington’s initial proposal. The work was sectioned up and apportioned out to the three artists who working three or four day weeks took a year to complete the painting. It was not an easy task physically and the occasional attacks from passing members of the BNP impacted on the emotional well being of the artists. The mural was finally completed in 1983. Ten years later, in 1994, the mural was seriously ‘paint bombed’ by the BNP – during the political turmoil of the 1980s and early 90s there had been a rise of (NF) BNP activities. in 1993 Tower Hamlets (Millwall) saw the first election of a BNP councillor, Derek Beacon. The extensive ‘vandalism’ against the mural, waged by the BNPs ‘Combat 18′, caused the artists to think about protection – the type of paint – their own safety – costs – insurance – liability and legalities. Other issues that rose to the surface were moral and intellectual rights.
Although care and research was made about the materials and paint processes (Keim paint – v – synthetic paint) the mural began to suffer from weathering. Structural problems and the rendering of the exterior walls of the Old Town Hall also had to be resolved.
By the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street substantial parts of the mural were in jeopardy. Colours were fading and sections of painted surfaces were flaking – graphic details were slowly being lost forever. What had become a world famous mural was beginning to look very shabby. The mural was universally ladnired both for its subject matter and for it’s strong ‘Riveira’esque style’. Local people called for its refurbishment. Eventually, “section 106″ money (a method of apportioning funds from building and infrastructure developments) was found by the council and allocated for the mural’s refurbishment. But there was more delay and the community feared the mural would become beyond repair. New energy as a result of a change in ‘political leadership in the local authority saw the newly elected Mayor take up the cause to save the mural. The renovation was undertaken by one of the originating artists, Paul Butler, and his team and got underway during the summer of 2011. It was completed in time for the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the ‘Battle of Cable Street.
‘As an artist, and as a man of the left, I am very proud of my role in painting the mural. I do not claim ownership of it. It was clearly a collaborative piece of work. But I am honoured to have been part of this huge creative project and to have worked with Ray Walker and Desmond Rochfort. We put a year of our lives into the painting of it, apart from repairing it. It cost us dear – and nearly cost me my life. I believe this gives me the right to do – or supervise – any repainting that needs to be done, and I would remind you that artist’s ‘Moral rights’ are now enshrined in law.’ Paul Butler *
AND took an active role campaigning to save the mural and intervened to help ensure the originating artists were directly involved in the renovation works. AND also actively lobbied for a local community-led programme of events to take place to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Family ‘fun’ events took place over the long weekend at the beginning of October with a special event on the actual date of the ‘Battle’ – 4 October.
The Mural continues to draw visitors from far and wide and once again vividly recalls historically important human events that should never fade away.
- ‘Ray Walker’ published by the Ray Walker Memorial Committee 1985 – Sponsored by the GLC and LBTH
- ‘History of Cable Street Mural’ Paul Butler